Airplane cabin cleaners often exposed to dangerous substances

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According to the Federal Aviation Administration, more than 85,000 flights take off and land in America every day. Commercial airplanes often fly multiple times per day, carrying many loads of passengers. Like hotel rooms, restaurants and other enclosed spaces, these planes must be cleaned regularly.

Airline passengers are often unaware of this important task of cleaning as they rush from one flight to another. For some Chicago residents, cleaning planes can be a life-threatening task, as they may discover if they speak with a workers’ compensation attorney. Recent news stories and studies show that airplane cabin cleaners are often exposed to dangerous substances, including dirty needles, pathogens and human feces.

Hazardous areas for airplane cleaning crews

In the tightly enclosed atmosphere of an airplane, trash and waste accumulates quickly. Cleaning crews are exposed to danger in a number of areas, including all of the following:

  • Pockets on the back of seats (which are often filled with uneaten food, dirty diapers and other unpleasant items)
  • Toilets (which are often contaminated with body fluids, sometimes containing HIV and other lethal biohazards)
  • Galleys (which can contain food safety hazards and dangerous liquids)
  • Spaces between seats (which can accumulate garbage and refuse, even during short flights)

Cleaning an airplane involves contact with all of these areas. Every worker who cleans them without proper safety gear is at risk of a life-threatening infection.

Lack of appropriate protection

Many airplane cleaning staff in America must clean planes without sufficient protection. Workers inside the plane are generally issued uniform shirts with short sleeves. When they clean the toilets on the plane, they are often sprayed with hazardous fluids on their bare skin. Some workers report that their employers will not give them a change of clothing after they have worked in the toilets of a jumbo jet, even if they have come into contact with urine, feces, blood or other potentially dangerous substances.

Employees who work outside planes are also unprotected. The standard gear issued by contractors is a pair of khaki uniform pants and an orange high-visibility vest. During cold weather, workers who empty toilets into outside tanks must wear their own coats and jackets to stay warm in sub-freezing temperatures. When their outerwear becomes soiled with the feces and urine of passengers, they must either pay expensive cleaning bills or face exposure to a dangerously cold work environment.

Emptying trash is a special risk

The cleanup crew members who dispose of trash on airplanes run a high risk of contamination from dangerous substances. After the trash is collected into bags, it is transported along with workers in large vans. Employees share the confined space of vans with overflowing bags full of biohazards. A Chicago workers’ compensation attorney may be acquainted with many workers who have been injured by dirty needles protruding from these bags.

In some cases, the bags rupture and fill the service vans with trash. The hectic pace of work and the quick turnover between flights can lead to a lack of cleanup time. Some workers have reported riding in service vans with full trash bags and loose debris for as many as eight hours. In hot weather, the stench of trash can become overwhelming in the vans.

Recent strike over danger of Ebola

According to a 2014 report in the New York Times, airline cleaning staff at one of America’s major airports drew a line at the risk of exposure to the deadly Ebola virus. They went on strike after they were required to clean airplanes without sufficient biohazard protection.

The walkout ended with improved safety regulations in light of the global Ebola epidemic. Workers were given better safety equipment and fuller protocols for biohazard avoidance. According to the New York Times, some employees are still concerned about unsafe exposure to pathogens while they clean airplanes.

Why has the situation become so dangerous?

Cleaning an airplane after use has never been a pleasant job, but the situation in earlier generations was less dangerous for workers. As recently as the 1990s, most cleaning crews were employed directly by the airlines. They enjoyed the same benefits, safety precautions, training methods and equipment as other airline employees such as flight attendants and baggage handlers.

During the past two decades, the work of cleaning planes has largely been given to contractors and subcontractors who have no direct affiliation with the airlines they serve. These contractors hire workers at the lowest possible wages and provide them with a minimum of safety precautions. The result is often a group of overworked cleaners who find themselves exposed to deadly biohazards such as HIV, hepatitis, Ebola and staphylococcus.

Quick turnover times can lead to worker exploitation

Another problem with the business of airplane cleaning is the trend of increasingly quick turnover times between flights, and the resulting stress among airline employees. According to statistics published by the FAA, only 80.5 percent of domestic flights during May 2015 were on time.

Flight turnovers are short even in the best circumstances. When one out of every five flights is beyond the acceptable limits of timing, crews are put under even greater stress to work in unsafe situations. Some airlines have increased their profits by decreasing turnover times, even when a flight has been unavoidably delayed. This practice can hurt cleanup workers by forcing them to cut corners.

Airline workers have rights

All airline workers have the right to a safe workplace. Even if people are employed by an outside contractor, they deserve the same level of safety training and protection as airline employees. Workers who have faced dangerous situations while cleaning airplanes in the Chicago area may find it useful to speak with a workers’ compensation attorney.